What is sustainability?

While simple in its definition—described purely as the capacity to endure or carry on—sustainability is actually a word with more uses and meanings in society than the letters that form it

To some, it is a motto, a call to action or an ideal by which they live. To others, sustainability describes an interaction with the environment, a business practice, or even a community.

“It means so many things to so many people,” said Cal State L.A. Associate Professor of Liberal Studies and Communication Studies Robert DeChaine. “It is blurry—but also powerful because it has not actually been penned out.”

What is sustainability? What are sustainable communities?

These are questions that are explored throughout this issue of Cal State L.A. TODAY as “sustainability” is related to research, student learning and public policy, among many other areas. They are also questions that scholars and students across the Cal State L.A. campus have pondered throughout the year in workshops, forums and investigations initiated through the American Communities Program (ACP). Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Joseph A. Bailey II, M.D. the ACP promotes annual humanities-based research that explores the formation of individual and communal identities.

Two of this year’s ACP faculty fellowships supported DeChaine and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kate Sullivan’s research into sustainability as it relates to corporate rhetoric and the reconfiguration of marine spatial practices, respectively.

“I think it’s really important to have people coming from different points and perspectives communicating on the issue of sustainability,” Sullivan said. “There are multiple subject positions in relation to sustainability that we need to think about. Everything is interrelated and I don’t think that any one person has a handle on all of it.”

In regard to corporations, DeChaine has studied the rise of terminology such as “corporate social responsibility” and “sustainability,” what they mean to the public consumer, and how and why they may shape public attitudes.

People generally want to believe that business looks out for their needs, the good of the environment, the world, and not just its own bottom line, DeChaine explained. A “socially responsible” company can make a consumer feel as if they, too, are being good-hearted in their actions.

“But, I am skeptical of the idea of melding together human rights principles and calls for humanitarian action with capitalism,” DeChaine added. “Does it actually result in public good?”

Meanwhile, Sullivan’s research examines how discussions about sustainability have reshaped how people think about the marine environment, specifically in relation to salmon farming, fisheries, and marine governance and spatial planning. Broader awareness and representation of the topic in media and online sites has engaged a larger, more diverse population in a conversation on managing water resources.

“I am interested in how we create our objects of inquiry,” Sullivan said. “How is it that people are reimagining the objects that we have to take care of? How do they make meaning out of their world?”

For more on Sullivan or DeChaine’s research, visit the American Communities Program online at /academic/al/acp/index.php.